It was a Thursday, the day his routine began to disintegrate. He could never remember the exact date of it, but he always remembered it was a Thursday. How very Arthur Dent, he would think.
Thursday started out like most every other day. Colin Snow woke up every morning at the same time, next to the same woman, and did the same damn things he always did in the morning, which was to shower, dress, feed the cat, make coffee, and kiss Katie on the cheek and grab the lunch she had packed for him before heading out the door to catch the 7:45 bus downtown, where he would sit alone at a spare desk in the offices of Worick Mortgage Brokers & Lenders and get the paperwork for their new, incoming associates (and there were lots of them, since they had been buying out several of the other companies lately) filed away and updated. It was a mindless sort of thing, he knew. There used to be at least some bit of interest in trying to decipher some sloppy, possibly important, hand-written note on one of the photocopies. There used to be some variety in trying to sort out which of the three applications with the same person's name on them was more recent. But he'd gotten good at it, in the last three years, and incidents that he would have spent the better part of the afternoon wrestling with were now hardly a blip on his radar. He could practically do everything on autopilot.
At about 4:15, Colin would finish up the file he was working on, save everything to the database, shut off his computer, and leave the building. At 4:35 he would be standing at the southeast corner of the block, observing the approach of the city bus once more, and by 4:40 at the latest, he would be on his way home to kiss Katie on the cheek, feed the cat, eat dinner, have a hard cider or two while watching the news and reading a book, and then go to sleep.
He was comfortable with his routine. In fact, it had never even occurred to him to think of it as a routine. Something out of the ordinary would have had to occur to make him aware of how ordinary everything else in his life really was. However, on Thursday, three stops from his apartment, the woman sitting in the seat in front of him, who up until this point had been reading quietly and without stirring or speaking at least since Colin had gotten on the bus himself, stood up and tossed her book into his lap.
"Here," she said. "I think you'll like it."
Then she was gone.
Colin Snow stared at the book in his lap for several moments before it occurred to him to try and respond, but by then she had already stepped down to the street, and he watched her walk away, in her sensible shoes and her flattering blue-jeans and a blouse of forest green that left much to the imagination but in a way, Colin thought (although it surprised him that this thought even crossed his mind), made her seem all the more attractive because of it.
He glanced back down at the book she had left him with. It was paperback, with the illustration of a 17th-century French (or at least, he looked French) nobleman on the front cover. The title read Candide. He flipped to the inside cover and found nothing but the usual there; not even the handwritten name of the owner, should the book be misplaced or dropped somewhere – on a bus, for instance.
How very odd, thought Colin Snow.
He glanced out the window again, but she had turned the corner or stepped inside a shop, and even if he had been able to catch a glimpse of her face, he was not sure that he would recognize her; he could not recall even the color of her hair, now. He felt very odd, suddenly, in the back of his throat, and he tucked the book away in his briefcase and tried to forget about it.
He returned home and fulfilled his aforementioned obligations of kissing, feeding, and eating. However, when he sat down in his usual chair with a Woodchuck and the remote to the television, he suddenly remembered the book that the stranger had given him on the bus.
He chose to ignore it.
The next day, once more, Colin Snow repeated the process all over again. Friday was no different than Thursday, and it never had been. Saturday, of course, they were going upstate to visit Katie's parents, but they always did that the first Saturday of every month. He didn't even need the gentle reminder that Katie provided when she handed him his lunch and a thermos of coffee.
The book stayed in his briefcase; he hoped that if he saw the woman who had given it to him, he would be able to return it. Surely she just had him mixed up with somebody else. That was probably it. After all, she had spoken as if she had known him, as if she had seen and spoken with him almost every day for the last few months, at least. He watched and waited for her on the 7:45 bus to Worick Mortgage Brokers & Lenders, but there was no sign of her at all. Probably he would see her on the bus that evening, he thought. Yes, that would be most likely; he seemed to recall having seen her before, although he still, for the life of him, could not recall the shape of her face, or even the color of her hair. Only those sensible shoes, and that forest green blouse.
She was not, however, on the 4:35 bus when he boarded it to return home. He searched the other faces on the bus avidly, hoping that maybe he would recognize some hint of her in them, but he found nothing. He even went so far as to (surreptitiously, of course) inspect their shoes, especially those of the women who were flipping through paperback novels as the bus wound its way through the maze of city streets, stop lights, and rush-hour traffic. However, none of them paid him any attention, the way he was sure that his mysterious, nameless book-lender would, and it surprised him that he was so engrossed in his search that he very nearly missed his stop at 5:20.
Then Colin Snow went home, kissed Katie, ate dinner, fed the cat, and had two Woodchucks while watching the news. Candide balanced delicately on the arm of his favorite chair, but he did his best not to look at it.
The next morning he and Katie packed together some side dishes that she had prepared while he had been away at work, and they drove the hour and a half north to her parents' house. Roger and Meredith were nice enough people, and Colin sat down with his future father-in-law in the den while the women talked together over womanly things and got lunch prepared. It was, all things considered, a usual visit, except for a moment when Meredith said something about, "Once the two of Colin and Katie are married," and Colin suddenly self incredibly self-conscious that Katie had been wearing her engagement ring for the better part of the past three years, without a band to match it.
The thought made his stomach go a little sour, and he did not eat much at lunch when they all sat down together at the dining room table, although he did polish off a Crown and Coke afterward, and then another after that, which caused Katie to insist that she drive the car on the way home, instead of him. Colin knew that he was more than all right to drive, but Katie seemed slightly on-edge about something all of a sudden, and he relented without putting up much of a fight. As it was, he fell asleep in the car, lulled by the warmth of heater and the lull of the classical music Katie preferred. He dreamt about sensible shoes.
On Sunday they went to church and sat in the third pew from the front, in between the Warners and the Kiteleys, and made sure to shake hands with the same fifteen people they always shook hands with on the way out after worship. For the first time, when he and Katie sat down to lunch at their favorite diner, he realized that he could not actually remember what the sermon had been about or which songs they had sung, and that his discussion with Katie about the service was more her discussing and him making sounds of acknowledgment.
On Monday morning, Colin woke up, showered, dressed, fed the cat, and took his thermos of coffee and his sack lunch with him as he went to catch the 7:45 bus.
He had not slept well the night before, and he leaned his head against the cool glass of the bus window like he had when he was in elementary school. The ill feeling in his stomach had not faded since Saturday afternoon, and without realizing it he drifted off missed his stop at Worick Mortgage Brokers & Lenders.
"Maybe Voltaire really isn't your thing," said a voice next to him.
He opened his eyes and looked at the woman's face. Her honey-blond hair was tied back from her face with a clip the color of fabric softener; it matched her blouse. Just to make sure, he glanced down at her shoes, the seam of her jeans drawing a perfect line down to them, like a guide. They were so sensible that they almost made him feel shabby.
"Perhaps some Pratchett is what you need," she murmured, although he wasn't sure if he was supposed to reply or if he as merely speaking to herself. She had a book in her hands, he realized, and he noticed this so suddenly that it was as if it had just materialized out of thin air. As if she had been prepared for this moment, she closed the book (she wasn't even halfway through with it, he noticed) and set it down on his knee.
"You had better wake up, dear," she said, and smiled, as if she had known him for years and this was some little joke that they'd had between the two of them for some time. "I believe you've missed your stop."
She rose from her seat and got off the bus.
It didn't occur to him to follow her, he sat staring at the new paperback novel in his hands until the next one, when he finally realized that it was 8:50 and he was usually walking into his office at 8:45.
I could have followed her, he scolded himself, nearly tripping over the bottom step and barely regaining his balance on the sidewalk. I could at least have asked her name. But no, I'm a slow, sluggish dolt of a human being…
He walked the ten blocks to Worick Mortgage Brokers & Lenders, murmuring apologies for his tardiness to everyone he passed, none of whom really seemed to notice, and sat down at his desk at the very end of the hall. His coffee was still lukewarm, and he sipped at it, trying to bring himself back to the present and shake himself free of the mood that seemed to have come over him. He set the novel next to his keyboard and stared at it for a few moments before turning to his file cabinet and trying to put it out of his mind. It looked like a fantasy novel, garish in its cover art and boisterous with its font. The orange background, lime-green text, and multi-colored motifs made his head hurt. He stacked a pile of mortgage applications on top of it and did his best to forget about it.
After two months, he had a collection of more than a dozen novels, all belonging to the woman with sensible shoes. Candide remained where it was, on the arm of his favorite chair, for some time, until the cat knocked it over into the seat without him noticing, and it eventually inched its way down into the cushion of the chair, never to be seen again. The Pratchett novel became part of the clutter that crept its way across his desk, like an ice-age glacier advancing slowly but surely about his workspace. Von Ryan's Express took up residence underneath the passenger seat of the car after he dozed reading it one late Saturday afternoon, Katie driving home from her parents' house once more after he'd, again, had too much to drink after an actual confrontation with her about when, exactly, they were going to get married. The Great Gatsby was crumpled up, its pages and cover bent and most certainly torn, in the bottom of his briefcase, crushed by his other belongings over and over again until it finally submitted and conceded to being so blatantly mistreated. Silmarillion, and Catch-22, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, they all disappeared into Colin Snow's home, his car, his workplace, and worked their way stealthily into the nooks and crannies of his life.
He never read more than the first few pages of any one of them; for whatever reason, he could not bring himself to. He always looked at the inside cover, front and back, to see if he could find a name, an address, a handwritten note from some relative who had given the book as a gift to the woman with the sensible shoes. Never did he find anything of the sort.
Whether he realized it or not, Colin Snow's routine had changed. Rarely, now, did he remember getting home from Katie's parents' house, and on Sundays the sullen resentment about his "behavior" the night before echoed between them like the mess on the carpet between a dog and its owner. Mondays he was usually hungover, enough so that he was late fairly regularly on every first workday of the week. The hard cider in the refrigerator at home was gradually replaced by whiskey and rum. And every Thursday night he would return home after staying out late, riding the bus around its circuit once, twice, sometimes three times, looking for the woman with the sensible shoes (sometimes meeting her and sometimes not), and find that the cat had decided to piss on his favorite chair in protest of not having yet been fed.
She always turned up unexpectedly, as if she was always just behind the corner, watching him, and showed up only when she knew that he wasn't going to be expecting her. She always surprised him, flustered him, enough so that he couldn't make himself look at her face, and instead would look at her shoes, which seemed to have that air of someone smarter and cleverer than you and only has to arc an eyebrow to make you feel so dull and vacuous that you decide that maybe it's better if you don't talk at all, and so he never managed to ask her name. Sometimes he would see her twice, three times a week, and sometimes only once a week. And on Thursday, every single Thursday, he would catch a glimpse of her, somewhere – sometimes on the bus, sometimes walking past his office building, sometimes crossing the street outside the deli he had started frequenting for lunch, since Katie had ceased the production of brown paper sacks with nutritious meals and handwritten notes inside.
And then, one Monday morning, Colin Snow woke up an hour later than usual, with no woman next to him, and something in his head went blip, and without knowing how, exactly, he knew, he knew that things had finally fallen apart.
He showered and dressed, but had to search for twenty minutes for his favorite tie before he found it where he had dropped it last week, behind the couch. He filled the cat's food dish, only to realize that the cat and its kitty-carrier were nowhere to be seen. He found his wallet and his keys in two separate places in the apartment, not on the table in the entryway, which was where Katie always put them. He realized belatedly that he had not started the coffee, but by then he was running so late that he couldn't bother with it, and hurried out the door with his brain fizzling out in so many places that he scuffed his shoe on the threshold, tumbled halfway down a flight of stairs on his way to the ground floor, and then realized as he was hurrying to the bus stop that he had forgotten to lock the door to his apartment behind him.
It wasn't until that following Thursday that he realized that Katie was, in fact, not coming home. Whether because it had become part of his routine or because he could not stand to go home and find it empty again, he stayed on the bus until the driver told him that he had to get off, and then he walked halfway across town to his apartment before he became too tired to walk anymore, and he sat down on a bench and closed his eyes and rested. He had not seen the lady with sensible shoes at all that week, and he had not seen her at all that day. In fact, he realized, he hadn't seen her at all the week before, either. A lump welled up in his throat, and his eyes stung with a pressure that he'd rarely experienced since he was in elementary school.
He was hungry, and he reached into his briefcase for the leftovers of a sandwich he'd gotten from the deli that afternoon and had been unable to finish, but unwilling to throw away. He came up, instead, with one of the novels that had permeated his existence, a small paperback book entitled Sputnik Sweetheart. It was very clearly abused, its pages partially torn and its cover crumpled and folded like a half-hearted accordion. However, under the yellowing light of the nearby street-lamp, he saw something among the dejected pages, right there almost in the middle, that didn't quite seem to fit.
It was a name, he realized, written in bright red ink, possibly by a permanent marker. It bled through the pages on either side of it, but only three or four deep, so that he would never have noticed during the initial, cursory perusal he knew he must have given it when it was deposited in his lap. Lauren McKinley. His hands shook as he realized that this might, possibly, be the name of the woman with the sensible shoes.
The next morning, he was on the bus on time, groomed and alert and ready to speak to her, to talk with her, to tell her that he had read the entirety of Sputnik Sweetheart in one sitting. He wanted to tell her what he thought of the few pages of Of Mice and Men that he had read the month before, ask her about the Swedish novel she'd dropped into his lap the fifth time that they'd met. But she did not show that day, or the day after that.
He waited. He hoped. He looked, and searched, and he flipped through the pages of all the novels she had ever given him, looking for more hints, clues, but he found only her name, written in different inks, with different pens. One time he found a phone number, but it had been disconnected. He pored through them, the village of novels he had ignored, little gifts that he knew must hold more secrets to this woman's identity, who she was, where she was.
Weeks passed. Months. Colin Snow caught no glimpse of the woman with the sensible shoes, no sight of Lauren McKinley. He never saw her outside of his building, or on the bus, he never started to awareness out of his stupor on his way to Worick Mortgage Brokers & Lenders to find a new book in his lap. And still, Colin Snow waited, and hoped, and searched. Especially every Thursday, when he surreptitiously inspected the shoes of every woman who boarded the bus.